Are your characters loveable?

Should we always write loveable characters? Or even likeable?

I recently received constructive feedback on a short story I entered into a competition. One of the comments “…this successfully built empathy for her situation whilst allowing one to dislike her for…” led me to wonder how many times a character I have had empathy for, or even a person I have met, I have disliked despite that empathy.’Empathy’ and ‘like’ don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Not long after this I listened to a great interview with Dutch writer Hermann Koch who has written best selling novels with distinctly unlikeable characters and was thereafter involved in an impromptu discussion about the emotions raised during and after reading the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. How cross one reader was with the protagonist despite empathy for her situation.

That really is what writing a good story is about, isn’t it? Raised emotions and reactions, for the story to remain with us after we finish reading it?

Who are likeable characters and what makes them so? Anne of Green Gables?A rascallyClark Gablerogue with a handsome face and twinkle in his eye, a smile that sweeps you off your feet? A beautiful femme fatale who takes the bullet for the hero? I seem to be channeling 50s gangster movies. Bridget Jones? How about the Artful Dodger or Nancy, from Oliver Twist? Oliver goes without saying.

Our characters ought to have some redeeming features, or we would all put the story away pretty quickly.These will be in the eye of the reader and the skill of the writer. How differently is a character seen or interpreted between the mind and words of the writer and the eyes of the reader? A lot I think. Our readers are individuals and as such react, well, individually. They may not appreciate the depth of the character we as writers have slaved over.

So, must we always write likeable characters? Obviously not as the best selling status of the above mentioned authors attest. We must write flawed characters, but how deeply do we portray these flaws? We don’t want to turn our readers away. Should the protagonist be likeable and the antagonist not, because by the meaning of the word they are there to be Harper Lee booksdisliked. In one of my favourite books, To Kill  A Mocking Bird, Atticus is a warm, loveable character. However, in the recently released Go Set A Watchman, he is the antagonist; but so cleverly written by Harper Lee I am still a big fan.

What type of characters do you prefer to read? Maybe it depends on your mood at the time. After an exhausting day you might look forward to something warm and cosy with a happy ending. Or on a bleak wintry day you might want to fire yourself up with a deeply flawed character set on saving the world the hard way.

And do we write the sort of characters we like to read? After all we are in their heads a long time; we can even become them.

Back where all this began -did I like my character in the short story, do I like her now?  I’m not going to tell you, but if you would like to find out for yourself whether you might like her, I have attached a link here.

A quick note – this story, Invisible,  was placed 34th out of 251 entries; the first 31 were published. I am happy with that, and have chosen not to rewrite that story, yet; instead to move on and use their feedback on a current WIP. So the story you may be about to read is there warts and all.

 

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To Read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ or Not to Read…

In a previous post I mentioned I was anticipating the delivery of my copy of Harper Lee’s novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’. Well, that suspense has been well rewarded. I was unable to put it down until I finished it.Excerpt chapter 17 In fact Chapter 17, which is very late in the book and mostly dialogue between Jean Louise (Scout) and Atticus, held me spellbound. I still love these two characters.

We know this story takes place twenty years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and my favourite characters are all there, except of course Jem, and there were only flashbacks to Dill. I wonder how Jem would have seen the changes that were taking place and whether he would have stood beside Atticus or Jean Louise?

Despite his flaws in this book, I still have a fondness for Atticus; I don’t think he is really that far removed from the one we love in the earlier work. Aunt Alexandra is stronger than ever, and their stories flow well from the previous book. Henry, Jean Louise’s boyfriend, I am not so fond of, which I think was the writer’s intention.

In this post I am not going to delve into the debate surrounding this novel. I believe that only a very few can know the true story behind the eventual publication of this book and I applaud those who choose not to read it out of principle; loyalty to a wonderful writer. How many writers can claim such devotion.

My willpower is not so great, after reading the first chapter online I was hooked. As was the intention. I know. The media story goes that ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was the original manuscript  Harper Lee submitted, she intended it to be read. Her publisher saw the story in a different light and persuaded her to rewrite it. If this is correct I am very glad she did. Because we can now enjoy both of these wonderful pieces of work.

This is a work of fiction as is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Harper Lee is not a work of fiction. She is very real, but well funded and connected media would have us believe in many and varied tales about her and her life.

I for one hope she is happy and aware that her books give so much pleasure to those who read them. And I thank her for two wonderful books.

Favourite classics from our childhood – leave them in the past?

I await my much anticipated copy of ‘Go Set A Watchman’ to arrive by snail mail. Harper Lee booksI want to feel this book in my hands while I read it, and when I have finished, to place it alongside its sister on the shelf. So I have resisted the pull to download it to my e-reader.

What I have been unable to resist is the charged debate about the author, Harper Lee, and her books, splashed across social media and in print. The disgust, the derision, and occasionally a good review from someone who has seen beyond the publisher’s hype, set me thinking about other books written many years ago and how they might fit into today’s societal parameters.

Favourite books and authors from my childhood, Enid Blyton is a great example, are or have been taken from our library shelves due to their inappropriate content. Some have even been edited for today’s readers and put back. The Famous FiveThe content is mostly related to  racism and sexism. And yes, read now with no consideration to the time they were written, not read in context, those books may surprise or shock young readers.

Another example is a series I loved as girl, the Donna Parker series, by Marcia Martin. I remember well the bliss of finding a new one wrapped and waiting on my birthday. But it would likely be considered sexist and most unsuitable for today’s readers. I remember a comment in one book which mildly derided women drivers. Donna Parker on her own(When I think of the heavy cars without power steering that were driven then, it might come as no surprise some women found them difficult. And I bet some of the men too if they were honest.)

To let our children read these now would lead to interesting debate. Or should. Isn’t that a good thing? To compare the era in which they were written to the present, for children to embrace the changes, to show them how change can happen for the good, to find the underlying message? Do we talk enough to children about the books they read, to ask them what it is about them they like, what scares them or what questions might evolve? Just to encourage them to pick up a book and read has to be a good thing.

I wonder, is everything so monochrome, so politically correct that we give our children no room to use their imagination, to allow them to read books in context, to allow them to make up their own minds, have their own opinions?

Books like Noddy and the Secret Seven have certainly led to debate over the years, by adults. Should we deny our kids the chance to read the classics we loved, the ones with the simple messages of friendship and good and bad? They are part of our history and we can’t change our history, or make it disappear, but we can learn and teach by it.

Harry Potter bookFuturistic and fantasy genres are a large part of the market in books read today. We trust our children to know these are not real worlds and love that they are lost in the enjoyment of reading. Can we trust them to read the classics we loved?

While the debate regarding Harper Lee’s works might not be exactly the same, I will read it in context before denying it a chance of survival. It is a book of its time, from a young emerging writer, a book which perhaps needs editing, a companion book to one of the greatest classics. I know when I read the first chapter online, I felt as though I was curling up with an old friend, and I can’t wait to read it all the way through. Will I then change my mind? Stay tuned. (I have read it, read my post here).

Happy reading, what ever you choose to read.